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Shell's Arctic drill plan has too many holes

After years of complaining that the environmental community, North Slope residents and the Obama administration are delaying its Arctic Ocean drilling projects, it is now apparent that Shell itself is not ready to drill.

Its oil spill response barge still has significant unresolved issues, and Shell recently asked for a variance to its air permit, proposing that it now be allowed to emit several times the amount of hazardous substances already permitted. If it wants a variance to important federal environmental regulations, Shell should have to go through the full public review and comment process prescribed by law.

At such a late stage in the season (which ends in just over two months in the Chukchi Sea), its actions seem more political gamesmanship -- putting the Obama administration in political checkmate for the fall campaign -- than responsible corporate behavior.

And in an ominous start to its Arctic program, just this weekend Shell had a serious failure of the anchoring system for its drill ship Noble Discoverer in Dutch Harbor, causing a near-grounding. This incident doesn't exactly inspire confidence in Shell's abilities to manage its aging drill ships (which it was furiously retrofitting in Seattle until just a few weeks ago).

We still have not seen independent analysis demonstrating that the wellhead-capping stack, intended to stop a blowout, works effectively. Shell has yet to demonstrate it can respond effectively to a large oil spill in sea ice, and there is still no Arctic Regional Citizens Advisory Council (RCAC) established to provide effective citizen oversight. And Shell still refuses to answer some very basic questions regarding its commitments on Arctic drilling, such as whether it will waive the existing $75 million spill liability cap (as BP rightfully did for its Gulf spill).

Given this chaotic rush to drill this summer, one worries about what other important details are left unresolved, such as its all-important well design and well-integrity protocols.

Put simply, despite its continuing subterfuge and slick corporate sophistry, Shell is clearly not ready to safely conduct its 2012 Arctic drilling program. And, respectfully, the suggestion by Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Doc Hastings that the "potential for impacts is similar" between one Greenpeace vessel and Shell's massive exploratory Arctic offshore drilling program is simply ridiculous. The lawmakers may want to review some photos of the northern Gulf of Mexico from summer 2010.

For a development posing such risk to the Arctic marine ecosystem, Shell and federal regulators should put the 2012 drilling plans on hold and take a long, hard look at all of this over the coming winter. If Shell wants to drill in Arctic offshore waters, it will have to demonstrate far more competency and organizational skills than what we've seen so far.

Rick Steiner is a retired University of Alaska professor and current consultant on environmental sustainability through his Oasis Earth project.



By RICK STEINER